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  • Writer's pictureAnn J. Shubert, CFP, MBA

Why the February New Year’s Resolutions Fail Isn’t Your Fault

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

So it’s the end of January and that exciting image of the New You for the New Year is starting to fade. Whether you wanted to start paying attention to where your money goes, to exercise more regularly, or eat healthier, the things you swore you’d leave behind in 2022 are creeping back into your life, and the new good habits you wanted to build are slipping away.

Why is it so hard to make lasting changes in your life?


Because your brain is wired to resist change. It’s not self-sabotage or a lack of willpower. It’s not your fault, and you are not alone, it’s just your brain keeping you safe!

In this post I’m going to share some surprising findings that neuroscience has revealed about how our brains actually work that make it much harder to change our habits than we think it should be. Stay tuned for a post next month about how you can work with this wiring to actually make those changes you want to see in your life. Subscribe and you’ll be the first to know when it is published.

You’re Not as Conscious as You Think

It is generally accepted that our brains have both Consciousness, which gives us our sense of self and experiences what is going on inside us and around us, and the Unconscious, that takes care of all the behind the scenes work to maintain our bodies and process internal and external sensory data. Most of us assume our conscious mind is running us most of the time, and that simply isn’t true.


What is true? Well, buckle up, because your Unconscious brain is actually making most of your decisions and telling you what actions to take. It may feel like a conscious choice; however, according to Daniel Levitin in The Organized Mind (1), modern non-invasive imaging techniques used to study brain function as people perform behaviors in real-time has made it clear who’s really in the driver’s seat. .


For example, something like deciding where to pick up takeout food for dinner may seem like we are thinking through options and choosing one, but that is actually being done by our Unconscious mind and then communicated to our conscious awareness. And the processing is based on choices we made before that resulted in a good experience, maybe the food was excellent, or it was fast because we were tired.


That our Unconscious mind is running us most of the time is seriously troublesome knowledge because it goes against everything we have been told and even how we experience the world. But understanding that your Unconscious mind is running you most of the time is key to being able to actually change the choices your brain will make in the future.


The Power of Autopilot

You have probably had the experience of heading somewhere in your car, only to take the exit that leads to your work, or some other regular destination, even though that wasn’t where you wanted to go. There are many activities, such as playing a musical instrument or riding a bicycle, that wouldn’t even be possible if our Unconscious mind didn’t control all the actions our bodies need to take without us having to be conscious of them.


Anything we can let our Unconscious mind handle, through habits or training, intentional or not, saves energy and brain power for more important tasks. Being able to function on autopilot is useful, until it isn’t, and we have to get back on the highway to go where we really wanted to, or we reach for the chips when we’re trying to eat carrots instead.


Our Unconscious Is Trying to Keep Us Safe

Why is the brain divided in this way, with so many of our actions seemingly predetermined by a part of the brain “we,” our Conscious mind, can’t even access? Because the primary job of the Unconscious is to keep us safe. According to John Medina in Brain Rules (2), “The brain appears to be designed to solve problems related to surviving in an unstable outdoor environment in nearly constant motion.” We no longer live in this kind of environment, where there is danger around every corner, but our brain is still wired as if we do.


To do this all important job of keeping us safe, the Unconscious must be able to make fast decisions about what to do next. Thinking too long about whether the rustling in the bushes is a tiger or not isn’t the most likely way to survive! So where your Conscious mind is a slow, deliberate, logical thinker, that takes effort and focus to process information and runs out of energy fairly quickly, your Unconscious mind is a fast, associative thinker that is always on, and uses a Mental Model of the world it has constructed over time to help it know what action to take right now.



The Mental Model of You

Here we get to the key reason that change is so hard. The Mental Model your Unconscious mind creates and maintains from the experiences you have over time represents what is normal for you. It includes beliefs about who you are, as well as how the external world works. Your Unconscious mind uses it to decide what to pay attention to, how to interpret what you experience, and what meaning to assign to it, all important steps in deciding what to do next. The Mental Model of You will determine what you do based on who you are.


But your Mental Model is not accessible to your Conscious mind, not based on your conscious thoughts. Your brain pays attention to what you do, how you feel, what you think about, and what you think about doing, in that order. So just deciding, consciously, that you want to change something you do regularly, will not actually change what you do regularly. You may be able to spend conscious attention to pick different behaviors for a while, but eventually you will run out of mental energy, and autopilot will take over again, taking you back to your existing and unchanged Mental Model of You. Which is why making New Year’s resolutions to change your habits is doomed to failure unless you take actions to convince your Unconscious mind to change its Mental Model of You.


What Next?

I hope I’ve given you some understanding of why it’s not your fault that your best intentions to make changes for the New Year are losing steam come February. However, all is not lost! You can alter your Mental Model of You and make changes in your life, it just takes repeated, consistent, persistent action, and that is hard. In a post next month I will talk about how you can harness the power of the Unconscious to help you make changes that stick for the long run.


If you find this topic interesting and would like to learn more, I am going to begin offering a half-day virtual workshop later this year that goes into this brain wiring in more detail. It will offer a chance for discussion and questions about this very troublesome knowledge! If you would like to be notified when you could sign up, let me know here, and I’ll keep you in the loop!




References:

1 – Levitin, Daniel. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. 2nd ed., Dutton, 2014.

2 – Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. 2nd ed., Pear Press, 2014.

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